Less than a year after Kid A is released to unlikely commercial success (especially rare considering its lack of traditional marketing tools), Radiohead release Amnesiac. Most of the tracks on Amnesiac were recorded at the same time as Kid A, and even though this fact is widely known and reported, many claim that the album will be a return to the band’s guitar rock glory. This wishful thinking—also one of the most persistent and reliably false rumours of the decade—results in an album every bit as open to experimentation as its predecessor.
Amnesiac kicks off with “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”, which features some of the same bounce found on “Idioteque” and superficially revisits one of Yorke’s longtime lyrical fixations: the car crash. There are also a couple of lines repeated over and over—“I’m a reasonable man / Get off my case”. Another element that links the song to the sonic world of Kid A is the near-total lack of discernable rock instrumentation. But the piano-led “Pyramid Song”, a high point of the album at track two, would not sound out of place on OK Computer, an album which is beginning to sound like “classic rock” itself at this point in Radiohead’s career. “Pyramid Song” unfolds with one reward after another, combining a few simple but rhythmically elusive piano chords with Yorke’s falsetto. Eventually the ghostly Ondes Martenot and orchestra join and complement his voice. But the star of “Pyramid Song” is Selway, whose captivating drums perplex the listener’s interpretation of the song’s time signature. A close inspection reveals that the song is in most ways very straightforward, but the rhythm section (Selway along with Colin Greenwood on upright bass) creates the illusion of formlessness or suspended animation.
“Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” is a world away from “Pyramid Song”, and it continues to reveal the non-rock influences that made an impression on the band after OK Computer. Yorke’s appreciation of Aphex Twin and Autechre is most obvious on a song like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”, and Jonny Greenwood’s interest in the Ink Spots’ sound/production is apparent on the dozy “You and Whose Army?” All of these variants create a sense of genre hopping that would weaken a lesser band’s identity. But following Kid A, the effect is actually very pleasing in the sense that the band (and by extension the listener) becomes acquainted/reacquainted with a variety of tastes that the band credibly performs. Throughout Amnesiac, there is a retrospective view of experience that is not present on Kid A, even if the album concerns the same period or type of experience. This direct confrontation of the past, its effects, and realities of the present, is in some ways preferable to the numbness and denial of the 2000 album, but there is also a scattershot quality that prevents Amnesiac from attaining Kid A‘s level of total cohesion.
As if anticipating a perceived lack of accord and accessibility, the mid-point of the album contains its two catchiest tracks, both unsurprisingly featuring electric guitars. U.S. single “I Might be Wrong” uses a repeated riff and lively drum and bass, revealing the groovy direction the band will later take on tracks from In Rainbows. The past/present design pops up lyrically here with “There is no future left at all / I used to think” and “Think about the good times and never look back”. Sounding more like the mid-1990s Radiohead than anything else on Amnesiac is the allegedly Smiths-influenced “Knives Out”, another single with a comparative lack of complication and manipulation. “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” recycles “Morning Bell” from Kid A, but the song loses a lot of its muscle here. And “Dollars & Cents”—driven by a bass line that is distractingly reminiscent of Air’s “La Femme d’Argent”—fails to take off.
This brief loss of footing is firmly corrected with Amnesiac‘s final three tracks. It is convenient to call “Hunting Bears” the “Treefingers” of this album, and the song does serve a similar palate-cleansing function. But more than that, the mysterious atmosphere the song creates is indispensable in setting up the ominous “Like Spinning Plates”, which is by far the most successful result of Radiohead’s studio adventurousness in this period. Returning to the despairing confusion of Kid A, “Like Spinning Plates” is in effect that album’s late-breaking, returning culmination, employing the imagined sound of spinning plates and reversing tracks from the song “I Will”, which does not appear on the album. The combination of those dizzying elements with Yorke’s backwards/forwards vocal recording leads to a song that sounds new each time you hear it—truly the song of an amnesiac.
On finale “Life in a Glasshouse”, Radiohead takes a different approach than it has on any other song in two albums’ worth of stylistic tests and departures. Best described as “New Orleans funeral music” by jazz trumpeter and bandleader Humphrey Lyttelton (who appears on the song with his band to incalculable effect), the song is a showier, more sonically intense farewell than rose-colored death sendoff “Motion Picture Soundtrack”. As Yorke sings about familiar concerns like surveillance, celebrity and disposable culture, the guest musicians build to a fury on trumpet, trombone, clarinet, double bass and drums. Heads nod and fingers snap, but any positive resolution is spurious, because “someone’s listening in”.